In the state of Washington, squatters can legally claim ownership to a property through adverse possession. Adverse possession is a legal doctrine that allows someone who possesses another person’s property for a certain amount of time to legally claim ownership of the property.
To prevent a squatter from taking over ownership of your property, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the Washington landlord-tenant law as well as squatters’ rights. This will help you prevent squatters from entering your property and help you navigate the situation if you do end up with squatters.
What is a squatter?
A squatter is a person that starts living in someone else’s property without the owner’s consent. Besides not having any legal ownership rights to the property, a squatter also doesn’t pay rent to live on the property. Typically, squatters will occupy properties that are unoccupied, abandoned or have been foreclosed upon.
What is the difference between squatting and trespassing?
It’s easy to confuse squatting and trespassing, but it’s important to note that they are not legally the same thing. Unlike trespassing, squatting is a civil matter, not a criminal offense. Squatting will only become a criminal offense once the property owner has discovered their presence and made it known that they need to leave the property.
When does a holdover tenant become a trespasser?
Holdover tenants are renters who refuse to leave the property once the term of their lease agreement has expired. They are also known as tenants at sufferance.
If the landlord allows them to stay, the tenant will be responsible for continuing to uphold the terms of their existing or previous lease agreement. They will be living at the will of the landlord, however, which means they can be evicted at any time and the landlord does not have to provide them any notice.
If the landlord doesn’t allow them to stay after their lease term expires but they refuse to leave, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer lawsuit against them. At that point, the holdover tenant will be considered a criminal trespasser. Once they become a trespasser, they will no longer be able to make an adverse possession claim to the property.
What is color of title?
Color of title means that the ownership a person has over the property isn’t considered regular. Regular ownership means that the person who is claiming ownership of the property has acquired the property through the typical legal process. In the case of color of title, the person claiming ownership of the property is usually lacking one or more of the necessary legal documents to claim ownership.
Do squatters need to pay property taxes?
Yes, squatters must pay property taxes for at least 7 uninterrupted years while occupying the property. If they cannot prove that they have done so, they cannot make a legal claim of ownership to the property.
What conditions must squatters meet to lay claim to the property?
In Washington, a squatter can lay a claim of ownership to a property after occupying it for 7 continuous years. However, this is only one of the conditions they must meet to make a legal claim to the property. They must also meet the following requirements:
They must be able to make a hostile claim to the property.
Squatters must be able to make what is referred to as a ‘hostile’ claim to the property. In a legal sense, ‘hostile’ takes one of the following three meanings:
- Simple occupation. In this definition, the term ‘hostile’ is defined to mean a mere occupation of the land. The trespasser is not obligated to know who the actual property owner is. Most states follow this definition of a ‘hostile’ claim.
- Awareness of trespassing. Unlike the first definition, this definition requires that the trespasser has an awareness of their criminal actions. They must know that they are committing a criminal offense by living on the property.
- Good faith mistake. In this definition, the trespasser is assumed to have made an innocent mistake in occupying the property. They could have relied on an irregular document, such as an invalid or incorrect deed. Only a handful of states follow this definition.
They must have exclusive possession of the land.
A squatter will not be able to make a successful adverse possession claim if they cannot prove that they have had exclusive possession of the property. This means that they cannot have shared the property with anyone else, such as other squatters, tenants, or even the property owner.
They must have open & notorious possession of the property.
Under this requirement, the squatter must have publicly occupied the property. They cannot have hidden the fact that they were living on the property from anyone.
They must have actual possession of the property
A squatter cannot make a claim of adverse possession if they haven’t actually possessed the property. They must occupy the property, regardless of whether it’s a legal occupation at the time or not. They can prove that they have done this by beautifying, maintaining, or improving the property.
How to evict a squatter in Washington state:
Unlike many other states, property owners in Washington can remove squatters simply by involving the police. To do this, they need to provide the police with a declaration form. This is a legal document that states that:
- The person filing the declaration form is the property owner or their representative.
- The person staying at the property has no legal authority to do so.
- The property was not abandoned when the squatter started living on it.
- The person filing out the form understands that it is illegal to provide false information.
They will then allow the alleged squatter to present their case on their rights to the property. If the squatter fails to present a convincing case, the police will remove them from the property. They may end up facing charges for criminal trespassing as well.
To get a declaration form, please click here.
How to protect your property from squatters:
- Regularly inspect the property.
- Pay your property taxes.
- Secure all entrances of the property if you aren’t living there.
- Place signs around the property indicating “No Trespassing”.
- Seek the help of the police as soon as you notice the presence of squatters on the property.
- Hire an experienced property management company.
At T-Square Properties, we are well-versed in Washington state laws. If you hire us, we’ll work to ensure your property is cared for and occupied by a top-quality tenant so you won’t ever have to face the issue of having squatters. Contact us today for more information!
Note: This post is not intended to provide legal advice but rather practical advice from a property management perspective. Legal advice should always be provided by an attorney.